1. FreshStart attendees had the chance to visit the central kitchen of the Palm Springs Unified School District. Here, ranch dip is added to celery trays readied for distribution. ( Tom Karst )

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The produce industry can do more to make school foodservice operations more effective in buying and handling fresh fruits and vegetables, Stephanie Bruce believes.

Bruce, director of nutrition services for the Palm Springs School District, hosted a Jan. 15 tour of the district’s foodservice operations for the United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshStart 2019 attendees.

Bruce and Jen Mattocks, marketing and wellness coordinator for the district, guided about 20 FreshStart 2019 attendees.
The tour featured a look at the district’s central kitchen, lunch at school offices and an hourlong question-and-answer session with Bruce.

Serving 4 million meals last year, the Palm Springs Unified School District covers 500 square miles and provides 22,000 children with meals that include a variety of fresh produce, Bruce said. About 87% of students are eligible for free and reduced meals. Salad bars are in nearly every school, she said.

“I tell people I am in the Palm Springs Unified School District, and everybody thinks of movie stars, but Palm Springs is a very recessed area,” she said, noting high unemployment rates in the offseason for the resorts.

Bruce said the district spent about $750,000 on fresh produce in the 2017-18 school year and so far this year has purchased more than $514,000 in fresh fruits and vegetables. Bruce said the district spends about $10,000 per month on apples (in season), $8,000 on oranges (in season), $4,000 on carrots, $2,400 on tomatoes and $2,200 on cucumbers.

“We really are the largest restaurant in the valley, we serve more meals in 30 minutes than Denny’s or any other kind of restaurant services in 24 hours, and we do it with a lot of regulation and hardly any money,” she said.

The district has a $13 million foodservice budget and has 170 department employees, Bruce said. The district has a 20,000-square-foot central kitchen and warehouse and a 15-vehicle distribution fleet serving 27 schools: 16 elementary schools, five middle schools, four high schools and 2 alternative schools.

Bruce reviewed the provisions of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which increased servings of fruits and vegetables in all meals. Student are now required to take at least one half-cup serving, she said. 

Finding labor-saving efficiencies in food production is becoming increasingly important, Bruce said, as wage rates continue to rise in California and soon will hit $15 per hour.

“I have to start looking at ways to provide meals to students without using more labor, so I automate where I can,” she said.

Foodservice needs

Bruce said the produce industry can provide foodservice officials in school with greater insights on fresh produce procurement, including insights on pricing and markets. 

In addition, she said the industry could offer education on the variety and seasons for fruits and vegetables. A teacher recently told her that one of her students thought broccoli grew on a tree. In response, the teacher planted broccoli as a class project.

She said some parents thought the district was serving rotten citrus when it offered blood oranges in school meals.
“So we stopped calling it a blood orange and started calling it a berry orange and told them that it tasted like fruit punch, which really kind of did.”

Students — and teachers and parents — also need to know what the benefits of fruits and vegetables are, and where fresh produce comes from.

“Our kids are pretty savvy, they want to know where their (food) comes from,” she said, noting that local produce programs are valuable.